Review: Extraordinary Means

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Title: Extraordinary Means

Author: Robyn Schneider

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

Publication date: May 26, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I picked this book up purely because the cover font and color scheme was gorgeous. I am a shallow person when it comes to book covers catching my eye. The fact that this was somewhat alternate-universe and slightly speculative, along with being a YA romantic dark comedy of sorts was secondary. But I’m glad that’s what it ended up being about!

As always, a brief summary from the author’s website:

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it’s easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down. Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances.

At Latham, there’s some of the camaraderie and shenanigans you’d expect from a typical teen summer camp or boarding school, but it’s constantly in the shadow of the fact that everyone will either a) get well and go home, leaving their friends forever or b) die. So, you know, not really a win-win situation. And it’s an unusual situation to describe. I’ve read some reviewers describe Extraordinary Means as somewhat like Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. While the latter is definitely different because it’s about a boarding school where the students are being raised in order to harvest their organs, I agree that there’s still a similarity. The students are all living on borrowed time, and they know that whatever relationships they build will inevitably fall apart, and not by choice.

But at the same time, this book is special because of it’s strong comedic aspect. When the blurb says that the book is “darkly funny,” it’s not kidding. I laughed out loud almost constantly throughout, from Lane and Sadie’s narration more than from anything that happened in the narrative plot-wise. But then I’d stop and be like, “Um, these kids have terminal diseases. Some of these things that are cracking me up are actually really morbid. Should I really be laughing so hard?” The answer I came to was, yes. It’s okay to laugh. Because if you take away the humor, you’re taking away any chance they have at living somewhat normal lives. And the characters make it clear that some of the humor is theirs, but some of it is also a coping mechanism.

Some of the actions of the characters are definitely… nonsensical. For example, in one scene, Lane and Sadie sneak out to a county carnival. Obviously they want to live their lives, but also, to risk spreading their disease? I don’t think anyone would really be cruel enough to do this. Also, there’s a constant black market of alcohol and other banned items, and the teens end up partying like there’s no tomorrow. Kind of stupid, especially when you’re dying of a lung disease. I don’t know. Some parts just didn’t make sense to me.

But overall, while there were some lapses in logical judgment and while I saw almost every “plot twist” and dramatic event that happened (there’s not much in this book that will surprise you, probably), I enjoyed it. Like I said before, it’s warped sense of comedy was weirdly engaging. I found almost all of the main characters to be relatable in some way, and in the end, I was satisfied with my reading experience. So if you like comedies, romances, or books about dying teens (which seem to be more and more common these days…), you may want to give this one a try.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Let’s talk to: Will Walton!

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Earlier this week I posted a review of a recent read that I adored, Anything Could Happen by Will Walton. While finding Will Walton’s website to link to the post, I stumbled across his email address – and lo and behold, he agreed to answer a few questions. So here it is, my interview with Will Walton!

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TO: What was the most rewarding part about publishing your first book?

WW: Really, I gotta say, it’s been the response from readers who have been moved or encouraged by the book in some way. It was also neat to see how my parents reacted to it–very positively! I really wrote this book for them, but honestly, I wasn’t certain how it would go!

TO: Can you describe the process of writing the novel, from when you first had an inkling of an idea to when it finally ended up in print?

WW: The idea started with “Tretch Farm,” the name. Initially, I was like, “This sounds like the name of a picture book character, so I’ll write a picture book.” But then I started the whole coming out process–a time during which I felt pretty dang isolated. Writing a lightheaded story about a resilient gay boy from the South turned out to be just what I needed. So I kept the name “Tretch Farm,” since I liked it for how silly-sounding it was, and ditched the initial picture book idea.

During the early drafting process, two things changed. First, Tretch aged up! Believe it or not, I began by writing an eleven-year-old Tretch. Now, he’s fifteen, which just feels right. I feel like, when you’re fifteen, you are discovering so much about yourself, all while simultaneously trying to learn how to put everything into words! Second, the ending changed. Tretch’s parents were initially going to discover that he was gay and entertain the thought of sending him to a conversion camp. They were never actually going to send him, but still… that would have been a darker turn!

TO: What was the hardest part about the revision process? 

WW: Working under a fairly strict deadline was hard, especially since this is my first book and I was used to going at my own pace. Generally, it takes time for me to see what’s working and what isn’t while I’m drafting, and during revisions, my publisher was basically like, “go, go, go!” I had to adjust my work methods.

TO: Who are the characters in Anything Could Happen that are the closest to your heart, as the writer? And why?

WW: I love Lana Kramer. She is definitely more like me than Tretch is. But I also love the grandparents. They are the only characters in the book that are really, truly based on people I know: my own grandparents. And even though the grandparents in Anything Could Happen have entirely different backstories than my actual grandparents, it was so fun to spend time with them because they reminded me so much of my real Grandma and Granddad.

TO: Ellie Goulding’s music plays a pretty pivotal role in the novel. What about her music inspired you to include it?

WW: The album Halcyon had just been released around the time I began drafting Anything Could Happen. In fact, it was playing over the speakers in the cafe I was sitting in when I wrote the first sentence. I didn’t know what a big role Ellie’s music would play… but it came to be a huge one, obviously! I know this isn’t only true about people from small, Southern towns, but in my community growing up, there was such a concentration on politeness and tradition. Talking about your problems was kind of taboo! As a result, my friends and I often found we had a tough time explaining what we were going through to one another. That’s why music and books and movies became so important to me as a teen. They put words to the emotions I was feeling and helped me deal with them… This is exactly what Ellie’s music does for Tretch.

TO: Obviously, “coming out” as a high schooler (or as someone of any age, for that matter) can be pretty difficult, and even stressful, for a variety of reasons. How did you go about figuring out how Tretch would have handled that situation?

WW: I just knew Tretch was my hero, and I knew he would handle it exactly like someone I viewed as heroic would. Tretch is so innately resilient and loving–I knew that love would guide him in handling any situation he was up against. And in the end, I think it did.

TO: Most everyone in the book reacted supportively when Tretch came out to them. I haven’t seen that a lot in YA fiction! It was very exciting. What led you to make this decision? 

WW: At the end, the message the book leaves you with is, “It’s going to be better.” This was a lesson I was trying to prove to myself as I wrote Anything Could Happen. In having Joe, Lana, and Matt act individually supportive of Tretch’s coming out, I wanted to remind myself that there were people around me who supported me and loved me no matter what.

TO: Tretch is fifteen in the book, and he definitely encapsulates the tumultuousness of high school existence. What would you say to today’s fifteen-year-olds, if you could pass them along one message?

WW: I would say, just keep doing what you love to do. If it’s dancing, keep it up. If it’s writing, keep it up. I really believe that reading, writing, listening to music, and watching the Independent Film Channel (hilarious, right?) were the things that helped me out as a teenager. And while I didn’t, as Taylor Swift says, “know it at fifteen,” those were also the things that shaped me into the kind of person I am today. So just keep doing your thing and take care of yourself–that’s my main message, I think.

***

Thanks so much to Will Walton for his words of advice about life, writing, and the power of Ellie Goulding! If you like what he had to say, and you’d be interested in reading a stellar piece of fiction, do check out his book, Anything Could Happen. 

Tara

Review: Anything Could Happen

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Title: Anything Could Happen

Author: Will Walton

Publisher: Push

Publication date: May 26, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

This is one of those books that grabbed me at the first reading of it’s book blurb. Out of all of the recent releases, Anything Could Happen intrigued me the most, so it was only natural that I picked it up. I ended up buying it for my classroom, and in a moment, you’ll hopefully understand why.

First, the summary that immediately piqued my interest:

When you’re in love with the wrong person for the right reasons, anything could happen.

Tretch lives in a very small town where everybody’s in everybody else’s business. Which makes it hard for him to be in love with his straight best friend.  For his part, Matt is completely oblivious to the way Tretch feels – and Tretch can’t tell whether that makes it better or worse.

The problem with living a lie is that the lie can slowly become your life. For Tretch, the problem isn’t just with Matt. His family has no idea who he really is and what he’s really thinking. The girl at the local bookstore has no clue how off-base her crush on him is. And the guy at school who’s a thorn in Tretch’s side doesn’t realize how close to the truth he’s hitting.

Tretch has spent a lot of time dancing alone in his room, but now he’s got to step outside his comfort zone and into the wider world.  Because like love, a true self can rarely be contained.

I’ve said before that I love LGBTQ books where the characters aren’t straight and that’s not a huge thing – where their sexuality doesn’t take a starring role, because usually it’s not the defining aspect of a character (or at least, it shouldn’t be). But I think that coming out stories are equally needed. Especially coming out stories that are positive. Yes, Tretch is afraid of judgment – it’d be impossible not to be. One reason why books like Anything Could Happen are valuable is because queer teens need to see that they can be accepted, and that their sexuality isn’t a direct ride to tragedy and rejection. And more than just in regards to sexuality, throughout the book Tretch learns what it means to be himself. Music is a huge part of who he is, and eventually he realizes that he doesn’t necessarily have to keep that to himself. His growth as a person and his slow building of confidence is touching to experience.

In terms of the style, Will Walton also really captures the shaky time when everyone is trying to find themselves. His descriptions are lovely and his dialogue both moving and hilarious, depending on what part you’re reading. I felt fully immersed in the story for the entire time I was reading – it was smooth throughout and events blended seamlessly from one to the next, which meant that while there were ebbs and flows of action, all of it fit together like a set of perfect jigsaw puzzle pieces. That’s not to say that the story itself was unrealistically perfect – more like, when you look back at it, you realize – wow. That makes sense. That’s the natural series of events. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was wonderful.

What I didn’t love as much was that this book was all set around the holidays, which I didn’t expect. This threw me off just a little , especially because there was no indication about this before I started the book, and it was released in May. Something about reading about snow and holiday cheer just before summer was slightly off-putting. I also disliked the fact that Ellie Goulding music played a pivotal role in certain scenes. Like, I’m as big of a Goulding fan as the next person, but references to specific songs are going to make this book very dated in a few years. Still, after reading the whole story, I can see why that choice was made.

But like I said before, I definitely think Anything Could Happen has a strong audience out there, which is why I bought it for my classroom. It’s got friendship, family, a little bit of romance, and a lot of heart, all of which is put together stunningly. I can’t think of a reason why a YA reader wouldn’t find something to love about this book, and I can’t wait for more of Will Walton’s work.

And to end on an exciting note – after writing this review, I reached out to Will Walton via email because I stumbled across it on his website, and he agreed to an interview! So that post will be forthcoming. He’s not only a great author but seems like a genuinely sweet person, and I can’t wait for you to hear what he has to say about both Anything Could Happen and the writing process. So keep an eye out for that tomorrow!

But to end, as always:

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: All the Rage

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Title: All the Rage

Author: Courtney Summers

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

Publication date: April 14, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I am in love with Courtney Summers’ writing. I may be in love with Courtney Summers herself. This is a moot point. Her book This is Not a Test is arguably one of the best zombie books not about zombies ever written, and Cracked Up to Be is the definition of a meaningful YA read. So on the day All the Rage came out, I ran, not walked, to the bookstore to pick it up. And let me tell you, this did NOT disappoint.

One thing I need to mention: there is a major trigger warning for rape and sexual assault, both in the book and in this review. If these issues are triggering, you may want to steer clear.

But first, before I get further into why I’m in love with this book – have this short summary from Courtney Summers’ website:

The sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner, is not the golden boy everyone thinks he is, and Romy Grey knows that for a fact. Because no one wants to believe a girl from the wrong side of town, the truth about him has cost her everything–friends, family, and her community. Branded a liar and bullied relentlessly by a group of kids she used to hang out with, Romy’s only refuge is the diner where she works outside of town. No one knows her past there. But when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing after a party, and news of him assaulting another girl in a town close by gets out, Romy must decide whether she wants to fight or carry the burden of knowing more girls could get hurt if she doesn’t speak up. Nobody believed her the first time–and they certainly won’t now–but the cost of her silence might be more than she can bear.

The book starts with Romy under attack. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening – the whole story only comes together later through inferences and flashbacks. The poetic way that it’s told is fragmented, much like quick snapshots of an event that you see over and over in your dreams. It’s gritty, and gripping, and is as beautiful to read as it is painful.

Then the story skips to weeks later. You find out that justice did not prevail. Because when Romy speaks up, no one believes her. She’s shunned and slut-shamed by both strangers and people that she trusted to side with her through anything. At the same time, if she keeps it secret, she doesn’t have to deal with the shame of what happened, or the stares and the pity of people who know – but she does have to worry about what might happen to another innocent girl.

This is a very real take on sexual assault. Romy gets a job, falls in love, tries to “move on” with her life – but still clearly shows the signs of post-traumatic stress. Because when something like that happens to you, you can’t just put it behind you. Effects will linger, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. Romy faces the very real struggle of balance and how to let the past influence – but not define – her.

Also stunningly well-timed is the fact that the perpetrator is the sheriff’s son. The police force in Romy’s town, then, do little to help her, because if they even care to do so, they’ll face consequences. White misogyny through the police force prevails, which has become a frustrating part of American life even outside this book.

So many times while reading this, I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream for Romy, for girls like her who were sexually assaulted and never received closure, for girls who are shamed for their clothes and their personal choices, for girls who grow up in a world where every day is a fight to survive just because of their gender. As Courtney Summers tweeted:

This is the book that the feminist generation needs to be reading. All the Rage tells a story that needs to be told and needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, the book isn’t just a social justice tirade. It has a heart, and tells Romy’s story with both delicacy and power. I have faith that not a single reader of All the Rage will be disappointed. I also have faith that with the prevalence of books like these, our world can become a better and more understanding place to be a girl.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara